Gretel Figueroa, MPA '00
Profile by Sharon Barnhardt, MPA '03
After less than three years since graduation, Gretel Figueroa (MPA 2000) is already a seasoned microfinance practitioner. She is also enthusiastic about her field, “I am convinced that microcredit works. It is a powerful tool to change people’s lives.”
Gretel did not intentionally pursue a gender-related career. “I studied anthropology and economics and was interested in development and in finance. Then, I interned with PRODEM in Bolivia and saw how women’s management mattered so much. I saw the women behind the families. We didn’t lend specifically to women, but they were our best clients. I kind of stumbled into it.”
Gretel has worked with well-known microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Latin America such as Pro Mujer and as a consultant for the Latin American Challenge Fund, as well as with Oxfam-UK. She joined Women’s World Banking (WWB) in New York in 2001 as a Technical Program Assistant for Latin America and the Caribbean, later becoming a Microlending Services Associate. In this role, Figueroa travels the world providing technical advice according to the needs and requests of WWB’s 40 Associated MFIs. She has paid special attention to improving middle-level management in growing organizations.
When asked to describe a typical workday for her—both in New York and when traveling—she laughs, “Now that is really two very different things!” At headquarters, she spends a high percentage of her time in meetings with colleagues either preparing for a mission or reviewing a completed mission. “There is a lot of shared knowledge. We’re debriefing and consolidating it so everyone learns.” They also share this knowledge outside of the organization with donor agencies and remain connected with their field partners through regular E-mail and phone contact. There is also an ongoing effort to manage a global ‘Talent Bank’ of specialists.
In the field, “Most assignments start with meeting the Affiliate and going over the game plan. Then, the team (often they travel in pairs) works with loan officers, talks to clients and conducts research, depending on the demands of the assignment. At the end, there is a wrap-up session in which the whole team shares observations.” The writing of formal reports is usually done in New York.
Typically, microcredit programs make small loans to women or groups of women who use the capital to fund self-employment activities. While their lending models differ, the common link among WWB’s Affiliates is that “they are helping low income women and their families to get out of poverty and to live a better life. We want to work with the top institutions,” she explains. WWB describes its mission as expanding “low-income women’s economic participation and power by opening access to finance, information and markets.” However, WWB also specifically promotes women’s leadership both in its headquarters and in its partner network. This explicit focus helps to change the way people work and perceive women. “If women see other women in leadership positions and working for women, it is a very powerful statement.”
Gretel’s travel schedule is demanding and does require personal sacrifices at times, but she takes great pleasure in the time she spends with Affiliates and their clients. “The variety of tasks is the biggest reward. WWB hires people from all over the world with a high level of expertise. The conversations you can have are amazing.”
She emphasizes the hard skills that are necessary in her “business.” When asked what advice she would give to someone considering a career in microfinance, Gretel stressed that microcredit professionals need to have an ease with numbers. “Clients may know the business inside out, but when I go there I only have a few minutes to understand it. One needs to be comfortable with a balance sheet, to understand clients’ needs and to spot the “red lights.” When I came [to this field] there were mostly NGOs who were providing financial services to the poor. Increasingly, complex skills are needed to connect growing institutions to capital markets. Donor funds are not enough to sustain their growth. Organizations need to think like a bank.”
The experience that Gretel has gained has propelled her to a new position with WWB. She will soon be moving into the role of Relationship Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean.
More information about Women’s World Banking can be found at the organization’s Web site: http://www.swwb.org/
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